As the ship's builders set the mast secure and strung the rigging aloft, to the harbor we went, me, Inga, and Groa, with the tight-bound roll of cloth resting on our hips. There the strongest men set the sheet upon the yard and raised it up, "Pull! And pull!" blinding white in the noonday sun. It rippled until they rigged it sharp, then flooded full with the wind's breath. We watched the new ship bound from the harbor toward the fjord's mouth. In a moment it was out of sight. From where we stood we could see no farther than the hill where the homestead lay.
Now I stand before that very ship, with only the narrow plank to tie it still to shore, foreign though it is, as my mother always told me, though now she's gone, buried beneath a shallow mound of earth, with a stone upon her feet to hold her still, and I am alone, with before me only the great black water and what lies unseen beyond.
On such a trip my mother once sailed, though with even less hope than I, for it was then she was enslaved. So she'd told me many times at night, whispering, while the others about the slaves' hall slept, and she beside me in the straw, her warm, soft body pressing close to ease the cold, the painful tale of the place from which I'd come, a place I've never seen, a land whose air I will likely never breathe yet of which she told me ever and again, until my thoughts and my heart call that place home.
They came along the Irish shore with the dawn, stealthy and silent in the mist. Only the smell of smoke through the house's thatching warned of them, and then the sound of clanking metal as the raiders took the town, hut by hut, farm by farm. My mother told how my father hid her in the filth of a pit beside their byre, from which she watched him bravely fight against these enemies with only his sharpened ax and then, when they'd cut it quick, only with its broken stem. He was bold but could do nothing against their heavy Viking swords. They were so many, so large and cold and fierce, and he was alone.
When they split my father's skull, my mother said the Vikings laughed, spattering the grass with his honest blood, kicking his writhing body with their hard, thick boots. Her cries she could not quiet, and for this she blamed herself, for then they found her and wrenched her from the hole where she'd been safe. She showed with pride the scars from where she fought their rough hands as they dragged her through her own husband's blood, blood which stained her dress, a dress she kept even to her death, in which I saw her buried. From a molting satchel hidden in the corner of the servants' straw, I took the rag and dressed her in it myself, and my tears through my hands brought up my father's blood as if it ran anew.
That day the raiders bound my mother and all the others up in chains, but buried deep beneath her dress was her beloved's final gift. And so I came with her to slavery and to this land unborn.
They'd come then and taken us in a mist of silence, secret as death. But this day there is no need for stealth. This day we stand waiting to depart in a spray of these freemen's Viking songs.
Well, through the jostle, tone, and bustle, I look about for Inga, my one true friend, like a sister to me really, though somewhat older and of a different sort, all round and red, short and stout and quick to laughter, while I am mostly of a straight and somber sort, and sometimes, though I do not mean it wrongly, sour. Still, she is the dearest to me since a child, who has known my every secret and kept them ever still. Even now, though I am fully grown, I long to feel her somewhat safe beside me. Yet she is none about me now - only some way off - yes, there! - I see her - attending to our mistress, Grima's youngest children. Torunn - she's the girl, and the boy, Torgrim - both sweet enough, and most well used to Inga's constant heeding. Yet now they are off, and Inga running in a flail of skirt and pebbles flying, hailing them with exasperated shouts, "Yea, Torgrim, get back! Torunn, you stay here. Torgrim, come ye back here!"
Excerpted from The Thrall's Tale by Judith Lindbergh. Copyright © 2006 by Judith Lindbergh. Excerpted by permission of Plume, a division of Penguin Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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